Counter-terrorism becomes a key to U.S. foreign policy

Bush turns new crisis into the central cause of his presidential term

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 22, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With his warning to other nations, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," President Bush has defined American foreign policy more sharply perhaps than any president since the Cold War and backed it up with superpower muscle.

Counter-terrorism now becomes a key organizing principle for U.S. relations with other countries, shaking up the pecking order of allies, reordering priorities, juggling foreign aid and military sales, and influencing how the United States deals with regional crises.

A symbolic gesture tells the story. Two weeks ago, Bush declared that the United States had no more important relationship than that with Mexico. But Thursday night it was Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, his staunchest European ally against terror, who rose to applause in the House gallery after Bush saluted him with a warm, "America has no truer friend than Great Britain."

Pakistan, discarded as an ally before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, now stands to benefit economically and militarily by pledging to help the United States pressure and assault the Taliban.

Administration officials consulted with Congress this week on lifting the sanctions imposed on Pakistan and India because of their nuclear arms race, opening the way for arms sales and international bank loans. This will make it "easier to cooperate with them," an official said.

"All the items remain on the agenda, [such as] free trade and peace in the Middle East. But suddenly, something that was a fifth-order issue is now on top of the agenda in how you fashion coalitions," said Robert C. McFarlane, national security adviser to President Reagan.

Bush, once widely viewed as uninterested in world affairs, now stands to have his presidency judged by how he copes with the complex and risky diplomatic and military challenge of fighting international terrorism.

Like Jimmy Carter with the 1979 hostage seizure in Iran and Bush senior with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, he is responding to an attack on American interests. But unlike them, he has fashioned the crisis into the central cause of his term.

As happened during the Cold War, Bush threatens to judge other nations by a single standard - in this case, how they respond to his call to eliminate all terrorism of global reach. Speaking Thursday night, he said countries that harbor terrorists will be viewed as hostile powers.

But that threat loses some of its sting because of Bush's immediate drive to assemble and maintain the coalition needed to break up and destroy Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, believed to have been responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

This will require cooperation not just with Pakistan but with countries associated in the West with terrorism, such as Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Fierce punishment of state sponsors of terror will probably have to wait.

"Al Qaeda is a pretty tough nut to crack," said Kenneth Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicting a years-long effort to dismantle the organization's various links in some 60 countries. This can't be done without international cooperation.

"The coalition is the center of gravity," he said. "The coalition is coming together to fight Al Qaeda, not necessarily terrorism."

To build support for the immediate campaign against Al Qaeda, the administration has noticeably shifted its treatment of Israel, whose citizens have repeatedly been victims of terrorism and for whom counter-terrorism has long been a top priority.

Far from assigning Israel a prominent place in Bush's new struggle, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has increased pressure on Israel to resume talks with the Palestinians toward ending the violence in that region. This will make it politically easier for Arab leaders to cooperate with the United States, which is Israel's biggest supporter.

Some in Washington think the war against state sponsors of terrorism needs to get higher priority right away.

"At the end of the day, if it's not a war against state sponsors of terrorism, we will lose it," said Richard Perle, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who also advises the Pentagon. Iraq should be a target even if no direct link is found to last week's attacks in the United States, he said, and the United States should support elements seeking to destabilize other suspect regimes.

By subordinating other priorities to the war on terrorism, Bush invites comparison to the last time the United States let a single cause dominate its foreign policy - during the Cold War.

Skeptics fear he will forget about alleviating the conditions of poverty and absence of democracy that allow the terrorists' hatred to spread.

"There's no doubt that solving conflicts, promoting economic growth and democracy will do more in the long run than any particular military strike in the next 10 days," said Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution.

"A military strategy should not come at the expense of a larger strategy."

And if the current campaign ends up toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, the United States needs to make sure it does not leave the country in the same disarray as after the Soviets pulled out, said McFarlane. The United States will need to recruit other nations to rebuild the country "and stay with it to make it happen."

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